Walter watched Poppy break; clawing at her own face in fury, biting through the orb of sugar between her lips. This whole apartment situation had been a set-up for them — for the detective known as Sweet Tooth — but why?
‘Why?’ I suppose that was the easier part of the equation. After all, Poppy was considered one of the world’s greatest private investigators but it all seemed a bit elaborate for the common criminal. Sweet Tooth had been outdone by an unknown enemy but she was slowly putting things together in her mind, piece-by-piece. Walter could see it happening as her irises became flashes between each corner of the room.
Poppy North pulled herself up and darted from the tight bathroom, latching her gaze onto those market-stall security cameras. The tails of warring black mamba wiring trailed down the dry-wall in six places, congregating beneath the ground which Poppy tracked on all fours like a doberman, crawling towards the computer in the bedroom.
“I was too focused on the hand,” she muttered to herself, returning to two legs besides the now-irrelevant corpse of Anthony Todd. “That’s what the culprit wanted from us.” Poppy ignored his looming presence as she half-climbed over him to shake the computer mouse free from the hold of a stock screensaver, revealing an unlocked desktop.
Before Walter could narrate the culprit’s intent, a website loaded in; a fuzzy and unclear live stream of Maika Poisson’s apartment. As each second clicked past, a random pixel in the sea of colour would shake, leading up to the complete reveal of Sweet Tooth’s identity Catchphrase-style.
For the first time — in front of Walter, at least — Poppy froze up. Those painted nails returned to the side of her face as she slammed her eyes shut. “Poppy,” said Walter, “use your words, yeah?”
“Somebody… No,” she stopped, letting the bare plastic stick fall from her lips. Walter paced as if to give the detective more room to breathe, propping himself atop the computer desk. “If somebody wanted to reveal my identity, they would just pull the trigger and do it.”
“The ulterior motive is coming from personal experience.”
Walter tapped a few random keys from his high-throne position, leading to no reaction on the screen. “You’re thinking somebody already figured out your identity, how?”
“You did it.”
“Well, I’m pretty incredible.”
“I’m quite lucky.”
Poppy dipped into her blazer again, retrieving another snack from the inner pocket before storming off towards the victims. Walter had been ditched again, his attention turned to the screen sat to his lower-left. It was an awkward position to operate a computer from but, from there, he could observe Poppy’s technique.
At that moment, she was pacing around the bathroom quite aware of the time constriction. He didn’t feel like a whole lot of help but, perhaps, if Walter could figure out the exact remaining time before the screen cleared up, it might put Poppy’s heart rate to rest.
You couldn’t call Walter computer literate at the best of times — he’s a little better now, thanks to Poppy’s influence — but he could figure the website had been custom-built by the culprit themselves. It was shoddy and… he used the word ‘prickly’ but I’m not quite sure what that would mean in this context.
The live video feed sat in the centre of the webpage but — minimised in the lower left — a chat window was available, holding back a swarm of misspelled messaged and vivid emoticons. People were tuning in from all around the information super-highway; criminals and other various nasties who might have some kind of stake in the future of the case.
Each message had been time-stamped and rolling the conversation back to its genesis revealed the live-streamed began just one hour ago. Had the cameras been programmed to flick on when the arm hit the ground? They didn’t look posh enough for that but then, Walter supposed, motion-detection was their primary function.
It was clear from the comment torrent that these creatures had paid good money to watch the Picasso shapes of an anonymous detective solve a mystery. On that note, Walter put his head on his hands and leant forwards, peeking through his fingers at Poppy’s clear image across the living room.
Thumb to her lips, fringe slicked back with sweat, right cheek puffed out by the lollipop. She had removed her blazer, allowing Katja to sit on it, and revealing a perspiration polka-dotted button-up, sleeves rolled up.
A rectangular scar sat on the curve of her right wrist about the size of two twenty-pence pieces beside each other. As though the same skin had been torn from the bone on several occasions, the fresh tissue was plump and sore.
Curiosity got the better of Walter as he leant closer towards her for a minuscule human zoom, pulling down the very desk beneath him. The monitor, several crumpled notes, and three of the drawers tumbled down along with the wannabe detective. Their trajectory pushed Anthony Todd backwards and over but not out of his duct-tape tomb.
“Shit, shit,” Walter muttered as he scrambled from his back to his feet and pulling the recently-deceased to an upright position. The monitor came next in the rescue effort; although for a moment Walter believed he’d solved the problem entirely, he had just unplugged the screen from the tower.
On second thought, if he had disconnected the cameras from the computer by accident, could he had caused a much larger problem? The culprit — or Poppy — would’ve thought of that first, right?
He’s shaking his head, let’s not get into it.
Walter brought his attention to the empty desk drawers, hoping he hadn’t caused any damage. Once the case is all over, Maika would eventually have to settle back in to real life and he didn’t want to make it any more difficult that it had to be. It was a nice desk so, even if she didn’t want it, she’d get a pretty penny for it.
Unfortunately, it seemed his little tumble had caused an issue with the bottom drawer. The first two would slot back into place no problem but the third no longer fit where it belonged and…
He should’ve clocked on sooner, he admits, but wasn’t this drawer slightly heavier than the others. It concealed something, a fake bottom where she kept the most incriminating evidence. Did that shift Maika up the suspicion ladder? It was a shady thing for a normal person to do, that’s for sure, but she was an investigator herself.
Thoughts — detective-y thoughts — flew past the backs of his eyes, something that might impress Poppy… There wasn’t a hidden lock to pick or a code to crack in sight. He could scour the sides for a tiny hole where a small biro — perhaps even Poppy’s discarded lollipop stick — would fit and twist to unlock some specially designed mechanism, popping the fake bottom from its latches, and revealing the truth.
In reality, Walter had just lifted the drawer above his head and tossed it to the ground like some kind of animal. From the secretive wooden centre of the construct, a simple paper journal broke free and flew across the room. A kraft paper cover; cheap and well-used with Maika Poisson’s tiny name ink-brushed on the lower left corner. In it, the detective kept bullet notes on the daily lives of a handful of names: Bernie Odan, Aoife Sheridan, and Poppy North.
“Pops,” Walter called out, “the kind detective has some explaining to do when she wakes up.”
He stuck his head around the corner after a second, awaiting harsh punishment for shortening his superior’s name on instinct but instead, Walter was greeted by the sight of Poppy North dragging Katja by the trouser leg out of the bathroom door. She wasn’t happy about the situation but her muffled cries had more snark than fear.
As she passed the bathroom boundary, the secretary’s anklet started to beep; slow at first but quickly becoming sharp and splitting to their unprotected ears.
“I just needed to know what it did… Anyway,” she spoke through grit teeth, turning her attention to Katja again. “You should not protest, I’m literally trying to save your life.”
Katja scowled and gestured towards her anklet with her head. “You’re not being very gentle about it,” said Walter. “Did it help?”
Before the screech became a drone, Poppy pulled a 180 and returned Katja to her original position atop her blazer. She herself took a scowl, “the beeping gets louder when she leaves the bathroom.”
“I imagine it is a precaution for Katja’s sake. If she tried to leave the building, that sniper would open fire. Katja Amirmoez is important to the culprit or, at least, she was until Todd passed away.”
“Do you want some more bad news?”
“That implies learning about the anklet was unhelpful.”
“Let’s take a look in the other room, shall we?”
Poppy followed Walter into the bedroom-office once more, pinching the journal from between his fingers before the amateur detective had the chance to gloat about his hard work. Instead, he opted to wheel the corpse out of the room, now dull to both its former existence as a human, and its current odour.
It had become nothing more than a set-piece in the culprit’s performance, a state of mind Poppy would later encourage in droves.
“A unknown has been paying Maika a salary to track these three people,” he kept his sentences as vague as he could for Poppy’s sake. Not that he hadn’t already confirmed that Poppy was Poppy within the camera’s earshot, but still, it felt like the right thing to do at the time.
“Her employer must have suspected that one of us was Sweet Tooth,” Poppy didn’t keep to the same vagueness. In the grand scheme of things, the culprit had all the evidence they needed to reveal Sweet Tooth’s identity if they took enough notice.
That was their intention, wasn’t it?
It seemed like a strange set of victims to choose on a whim but Poppy didn’t seem to pick up on any familiar identities. Had the culprit been targeting detectives in particular in hopes of sparking a response?
How did they know that Sweet Tooth would respond to Todd’s call?
“Do you recognise any of the other names?” asked Walter.
“At one point or another, we have all come face-to-face. Bernie Odan is a government operative located in Ireland and Aoife Sheridan is…” she paused and, for a brief second, Walter caught her rolling her eyes. It was like her inner child took control of her mouth just to say, “she’s a handful.”
“It’s nice that you have friends.”
“I dislike them both.”
“You don’t have to like your friends.”
“Sweet Tooth is world-renowned, I suppose these three names are the most likely suspects. People would be willing to pay fortunes atop fortunes to silence Sweet Tooth, especially considering it is widely believed that it’s a detective organisation, not a single person.”
“This isn’t the first time they’ve been targeted?”
“It will certainly not be the last.”
“From what I read, Maika had just over three months to uncover Sweet Tooth’s identity before she’d be punished which means she figured out that it’s just one person,” said Walter. “Maybe the culprit sliced off her finger as a first warning?”
“No, I don’t think that’s right.”
“Wait,” Walter said, “maybe the culprit already knew before sending Maika out?”
“How do you mean?”
“Sweet Tooth is easily accessible, right? They’ve got a phone number that you can ring, it’s broadcast every night. Why even bother inviting another private detective to decipher Sweet Tooth’s identity when you could just kidnap the envoy that shows up, or lure them into a trap.” Walter snatched back the book, returning to its ink-thickened pages. “The culprit knew that the real Sweet Tooth would investigate, not just an envoy.”
“If you’re right, then the sniper, the anklets, the body… was it all for show?”
“I’m thinking the culprit has some kind of personal obsession to Sweet Tooth like, maybe they were one-upped in the past?”
Poppy’s mouth slacked open just far enough for another bare stick to slip to the ground, she shook her head at Walter’s theory. Close? Walter expected some kind of slick one-liner as the case began to crack around them; the simplicity of the answer left Poppy dumbfounded but her assistant couldn’t hazard a guess at the point he had helped.
Poppy stormed out of the room, and Walter scurried behind her.